RENO, Nev. — State and federal land managers working to keep the greater sage grouse off the list of endangered species have secured a $2 million grant from the Pentagon to help finance habitat restoration beneath thousands of square miles of U.S. Navy training airspace in Nevada.
The money recently was approved by the Defense Department's Military Services' Readiness and Environmental Protection Integration Program, officials for the Nevada Department of Wildlife and U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service told The Associated Press on Wednesday.
"This unique partnership between the military and environmental partners is the first of its kind in Nevada," Gov. Brian Sandoval said in a statement prepared for Thursday's formal announcement.
The grant will leverage an additional $2 million in matching funds to help restore more than 11,000 acres of prime sage grouse habitat — a total of about 7 square miles — under airspace controlled by the Fallon Naval Air Station headquartered about 60 miles east of Reno.
The DOD program also recently approved $2 million to help protect 7,000 acres of gopher tortoise habitat surrounding Fort Benning in Georgia and $2 million to protect 10,000 acres of forest in Maine affiliated with the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard's survival school.
In Nevada, the funds will help ranchers and others who apply for assistance to make rangeland and riparian improvements, including removal of pinon pine trees that serve as perches for raptors that feed on sage grouse eggs and chicks. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has to make a court-ordered decision by Sept. 30 on whether to add the bird to the list of species protected under the Endangered Species Act.
"We are thrilled to be able to move forward at an increased pace to protect parcels of greater sage grouse habitat, thanks to the REPI Challenge award and the commitment by so many partners," NDOW Director Tony Wasley said.
In addition to NDOW and the NRCS, participants include The Nature Conservancy, Nevada Land Trust, Nevada Conservation Districts Program and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
"That they all came together is pretty monumental in itself," said Heather Emmons, Nevada spokeswoman for the NRCS in Reno.
Rob Rule, NAS Fallon's community plans and liaison officer, said the funding is "beneficial for everyone."
The chicken-sized bird, which once numbered in the millions, has dwindled to a few hundred thousand across the vast sagebrush seas remaining in 11 states from California to the Dakotas. Some of its most critical remaining habitat is in the Great Basin spread across parts of Nevada, Utah, Idaho and Oregon.
Most of that land is managed by the BLM, but some 13,000 square miles in Nevada also falls under the jurisdiction of Fallon NAS airspace.
"It's a huge chunk of pretty significant habitat," said Mark Freese, a wildlife biologist for NDOW.
Thad Heater, NRCS state wildlife biologist, said the trees give hawks and ravens a better view of sage grouse especially during the nesting season.
"They can raid the nests and get the chicks," he said.
Heater said they're already seeing results from the removal of trees just a year ago to benefit the bi-state sage grouse in Douglas County along the Nevada-California line.
"The birds are crossing areas they hadn't been using before. It's really opened up some important corridors," he said.